The current playground at Merwin Meadows was originally built and installed in the mid- to late-90s, purchased through money that was raised by private individuals. Though Parks & Recreation have made some improvements and repairs over the years, that same original, basic wooden playground structure still exists today, and it’s a structure that has seen better days.

Back in March 2015 Parks & Rec director Steve Pierce told GOOD Morning Wilton that improving the Merwin playground is on the department’s wish list, but it’s not in the current budget. The department has budgeted $10,000 for FY ’15-’16 for an architectural firm to look at overall ways to improve the entire park. “That would include the bath houses, the grounds maintenance barn, the playground, the soccer field, really the whole area–it’s to come up with a master plan that we could implement over a series of years.”

In March, Pierce said he welcomed help from anyone who wanted to find options. “If they would like to pursue something as a private fundraising, like they did to put that wooden structure in, we would be happy to work with them on that front. We’ll be happy to talk with them, that’s why we’re here.”

A few Wilton residents took him up on that offer.

Vivian Lee-Shiue, Chandra Ring and Aaron Schlechter formed a grassroots committee and approached Pierce,  volunteering to help research and create a proposal for a redesign and associated fundraising of a new playground structure. They established a goal at the start for the renovation to be funded privately through resident and sponsor donations.

Lee-Shiue sad that some of the motivation grew out of what some parents saw when they visited other nearby towns that have recently built new, larger parks and playgrounds. “A lot of moms in Wilton go to other towns and we were talking about how Merwin is so crowded, Ridgefield is working on a new park and Newtown has this great new park, and why can’t we have one? We just thought, ‘What can we do about it?’ It’s an opportunity for us to do something while our kids are still young.”

They started by creating a survey for residents to give feedback about the perceived condition of the current Merwin Meadows playground, and what the community thought could be improved and potentially added if a large-scale renovation could be initiated. The scope of the survey was limited to the playground area but they also asked for general commentary about the entire park facility. They have heard from approximately 250 people since initiating the survey the second week of November.

Once they collected those initial responses, they presented the findings to three different playground vendors and asked for some initial renderings and ideas. The committee then presented those in a proposal to the Parks and Rec commission at the commission’s regular meeting on Dec. 9.

Survey Findings

Lee-Shiue said one of the interesting findings was that while 35 percent of respondents said they’d be willing to contribute to playground redesign, the majority of respondents (53 percent) said they’d maybe consider donating to a project like this–only under the stipulation that something was done about the overall park, including limiting non-Wilton crowds, fixing the condition of the pond, and reducing or eliminating fees for Wilton residents.

“I shared that information with Parks & Rec, and they’re working on it. They’re working on their master plan and this [playground proposal] will be incorporated in it. The timing works out great, because they’re hoping to have a plan and a strategy formulated relatively soon. We’re thinking this project would be done hopefully for grand opening for Spring 2017. It works out perfectly. But it won’t be successful if they don’t address the public access and fee problem. They do know that.”

Another area that the committee found interesting was how people responded about accessibility and age. “We went in with the assumption that people would want an ADA/handicap inclusive playground; the findings showed that yes, people think it’s a nice concept but the need is not as vast as we thought it was. But where they said it was a significant need is they want something that caters to older kids.

In general, the survey showed the community has several “wants”:

  • Targeted age ranges (in order of preference): 6-12, 2-5 and 12+, with accommodation for teens
  • Advanced climbing structures like ropes, rock climbing walls, etc.
  • Alternative swings like tire or rope swings, or spinners
  • Monkey bars and gymnastic equipment
  • Slides
  • Traditional swings with at least one ADA swing seat
  • Partially (or fully) handicap accessible

The Design

Parks and Rec gave some guidelines to the committee:  to work within the existing perimeter and footprint of the current playground area; understand the ground is wet and there are wetlands to account for; and take into consideration that the current structure for younger (age 2-5) children is still in good shape and can be reused or relocated elsewhere.

Then, the survey results were sent to the playground manufacturers, who came back with initial designs which factored in most, if not all, of the things people wanted. Now the committee has about half a dozen initial drawings that helps them start to target a potential fundraising goal and a place to begin earnest discussions with town officials, land permitting officials, Parks & Rec officials and the public.

“We’ve incorporated inclusiveness–not so much ramping that you’d see in a fully ADA-compliant structure, but there are some accessible structures and children in wheelchairs can wheel up to it,” adding that the surveys showed people were more interested in incorporating design for developmental challenges like autism. “We’ve asked them to include those elements.”

Many of the designs also are tailored to older children too, including rock climbing structures and some modified zip lines.

Neither the citizen committee nor Parks & Rec want to release the prospective designs to the public yet, so as not to set the public’s expectations at this point, until they can firm up what is doable.

Next Steps

The committee, Lee-Shiue says, isn’t working independently of Parks and Rec.

“We’ll work as a subcommittee under the guidance of Parks & Rec. They just don’t have the capacity, time and manpower to do this, and if we’re willing to put the time and effort into it, help come up with the design, help fundraise for it–and the objective is for 100 percent of the funds to be raised privately through donations and sponsorships–they’re not going to turn that away.”

She did emphasize that whatever funds would eventually be raised for this would only be designated for the playground and not used for anything else.

Almost all of the designs came back within the same range, with the manufacturers basing their estimates on the square-footage. “Depending on the equipment you choose, it could be anywhere from $250,000 up to $400,000-ish,” Lee-Shiue reports, “it just depends on how sophisticated you get.”

For comparison, the committee looked to the new playground in Ridgefield’s Ballard Park, which cost $500,000.

“We didn’t constrain them; we just said, ‘Come back with what you can to fit all these requirements and then we’ll modify as we need to, but they’re all coming in around the same,” Lee-Shiue added.

As for working within the town, the next steps involve talking to the Planning & Zoning and Inland Wetlands Commissions. “Just to see, independent of the designs themselves, what are some of the constraints we need to be aware of in doing something like this, and to understand what their concerns are. Then we’ll start bringing it to the community to say, ‘This is what the designs look like, what do you think?’”

She adds that she has also met with first selectman Lynne Vanderslice. One of the benefits is that there is already an existing playground there, so it’s already zoned for this kind of project.

“Everybody is looking for a change and they’re very open to it. I think they’re being very careful, where projects in the past that have involved private funding may have had barriers to overcome, but they’re very open minded and strategic to how we approach it, and I think we can do it in a way that will satisfy everyone.”

And as long as everyone involved keeps in mind the concerns, including resident access and park fees, that will go a long way to making the project successful.

“If that’s not addressed, this will not happen,” Lee-Shiue says. “But they’re actively working to figure that out.”